Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
The Blacksmith of God
Brother Antoni left a trail of minor miracles
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
Born in Poland in 1866, a time when the Catholic faith was repressed by the Prussians, Antoni Kowalczyk grew up in a devout family; his mother was known in the village of Dzierzanow as the "almost saint."
The family was comfortable but lived in a very modest fashion, and the boy learned his prayers from his mother. His father was equally devout and often related to his children the lives of hermits in the desert of whom he had read in books of saints.
An important pilgrimage took place yearly in the family's home parish of Lutogniew, and when he was 12, Antoni took his First Communion there. His schooling was brief. In the state school, the children were forbidden to speak Polish and had to learn German; his mother taught him to read and write Polish, as well as the history of his nation.
He left school at the age of 13, and three years later apprenticed to a blacksmith. As was typical of tradesmen then, to garner more experience in the field, he went to work in Germany, where he worked for several years in a military foundry in Hambourg.
Antoni's eyesight became seriously compromised and doctors considered the young man would go blind. In intense prayer at a church, he miraculously regained his vision.
Devotion to Mary
Drawn towards the religious life, he was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary. In 1891, after seeing his family one last time, he entered the Oblate congregation. He was the second Pole to do so; many more came after. His practical skills were very much in demand, and he busied himself at helping at everything he could, considering each task to be a prayer.
He studied French there, although he always spoke it imperfectly (as was his German), considering himself too ignorant to learn it better. He thought the priesthood to be above him, and was happy to be simply a brother in the order, devoting his life to the service of others.
His spare time, he spent in prayer. Known as "Brother Ave," and the answers to his prayers were often nothing short of miraculous. Plugged water taps mysteriously repaired themselves, motors sprung to life, and animals followed him in complete docility, after one of his prayers to the Virgin Mary. Even then, his superiors considered him to be a saintly young man.
Having asked to be sent to the foreign missions, he was slated to go to Ceylon, but in 1896, he went instead to Canada to Bishop Vital Grandin's Diocese of St. Albert. From there, he was posted to Lac la Biche where his tradesman's skills were needed at the mission's sawmill.
While working there the following year, he caught his right sleeve in a belt which pulled his hand into the machinery, and suffered a serious compound fracture to his arm. Although a local doctor thought that the arm could be saved, it was six days before he could receive the hospital care needed, and by that time gangrene had set in.
There was a temporary shortage of anaesthetics at the hospital, and after a short intense prayer, he told the surgeon to go ahead anyway. Tightly holding his Oblate cross to his lips, his arm was amputated without any painkillers; his body slowly trembled with the first cut of the scalpel, after which he remained motionless throughout the procedure.
After his recovery, he returned to Lac la Biche to help in the move of the proposed school to Saddle Lake, and then was posted to the colony of St. Paul-des-Métis, where the mill had also been moved. He helped reinstall the mill, and in spite of his missing arm, he continued to work at the everyday tasks expected of him.
In the evenings, he would help passerbys, most of whom were poor Indians and Métis, and repair their rickety carts. He grew a lush garden and gave produce to the needy as well.
As the mission farm was far from self-sufficient, an experiment in raising hogs nearly ended disastrously when there was not enough grain to feed the animals. Intending to have them slaughtered, his superior jokingly instructed Brother Kowalczyk to lead the animals to a nearby marsh to feed, a task considered nearly impossible with pigs, intelligent creatures who have minds all their own and little herd instinct.
But after reciting an Ave, the brother led the animals time and time again to the marsh without incident; once even leading the 200 animals by a fine field of oats to an adjoining field of turnips.
In 1911, Kowalczyk was posted at the Juniorat St. Jean, a school for boys and potential recruits to the Oblate order (now the Faculté St. Jean of the University of Alberta). He was janitor, boiler operator, furnace keeper, gardener, and general handyman all rolled into one, and was also in charge of the institution's livestock (horses, cows, hogs, poultry).
He solicited donations to furnish the school's chapel where he spent so much time in prayer, and later also raised funds to build the grotto to the Virgin Mary which is still on the grounds of the Faculté.
Although solicited by Polish Oblates, during his later years, he was never permitted to return to his homeland. To him, obedience and submission were the way to holiness, and he rarely questioned his superiors' orders.
He was 81 when he died in 1947, having spent more than 50 years with the order. Proceedings for his beatification began in 1982 and he could well become Alberta's first saint.